Commentary: Opposition to Respect for Marriage Act reflects bishops’ paranoia on religious freedom

Like Chicken Little — and unlike Latter-day Saint authorities — the Catholic leaders’ refrain that “the sky is falling” has cost them credibility.

The U.S. Catholic bishops’ concerns about religious liberty led them to oppose the recently enacted Respect for Marriage Act, which gives federal protection to same-sex and interracial marriages.

Are the bishops’ fears justified, or are they being paranoid?

In a letter addressed to members of Congress before the vote, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee for religious liberty, and Bishop Robert Barron, chairman of the USCCB’s committee on laity, marriage, family life and youths, argued that the act would threaten government support for Catholic institutions that serve the poor as well as those institutions’ tax-exempt status if they did not recognize marriages between people of the same sex.

The bishops “tend to the paranoid, and they have opposed a lot of good legislation because of their paranoia,” said Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School and expert on religious freedom. “They have opposed religious liberty legislation, and they opposed health care for uninsured Americans.”

Laycock is referring to the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which the bishops opposed because they said it would force Catholic institutions to violate Catholic moral teaching against abortion and birth control. In fact, this has not occurred.

On birth control, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the nursing homes run by the Little Sisters of the Poor did not have to offer birth control in its employee insurance plan. In addition, the court even supported Hobby Lobby, a secular business, in its opposition to certain forms of birth control.

Nor in the past 12 years has any Catholic institution been forced to perform abortions or any other medical procedure as a result of the Affordable Care Act. These fears never materialized.

Laycock acknowledges that the bishops “were mostly but not entirely paranoid” on the Affordable Care Act.

“There was no guarantee that they would win Hobby Lobby,” he said. And “the Little Sisters won more than they deserved, and I say that as a strong defender of religious exemptions. No one could have known that the court’s new majority would go so far.”

After crying wolf over the Affordable Care Act, you would think that the bishops would be more cautious in playing the religious-freedom card. Instead, in response to the Respect for Marriage Act, the bishops said that Catholic institutions will lose their tax exemptions; Catholic social services will not get government funding.

Like Chicken Little, they cried, “The sky is falling.”

“Their claims about funding and tax exemptions in the Respect for Marriage Act are just false,” said Laycock. “The bill expressly protects funding and tax exemption from anything in the bill.”

The protection of religious liberty was included in the bill at the insistence of a bipartisan group of senators that includes Tammy Baldwin, Susan Collins, Rob Portman, Kyrsten Sinema and Thom Tillis. They wanted the bill passed and knew that it would be scuttled by accusations that it threatened religious institutions.

Laycock and three other constitutional law scholars, who have “studied, taught and written about the law of religious liberty for decades,” they said, wrote a letter detailing how the RMA protects religious liberty. In their arguments they shot down the false accusations that the RMA would threaten religious liberty.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and many other religious groups supported the bill once these protections were added in the Senate.

But the Catholic bishops said that “If passed, the amended act will put the ministries of the Catholic Church, people of faith, and other Americans who uphold a traditional meaning of marriage at greater risk of government discrimination.”

In opposing the RMA, the Catholic bishops may have hoped to hold the bill hostage to get protection not just from the bill itself but from other laws. If so, this tactic failed and simply further alienated their opponents.

The bishops’ “complaint is that it doesn’t protect them universally against any other source of law,” explained Laycock. “True, but nothing in this bill makes them any worse off.”

By their scare tactics against the Affordable Care Act and the Respect for Marriage Act, the bishops have lost all credibility on religious freedom issues, which is sad. There are legitimate concerns that Catholic charities and hospitals have over religious freedom, but who is going to believe anything the bishops say in the future. They have destroyed their credibility.

Unlike the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the bishops are unwilling to negotiate reasonable compromises with people with other concerns. Such an uncompromising stance is making them politically irrelevant. Neither politicians nor Catholic voters care what the bishops say anymore.

The bishops may feel that they do not have to compromise now that they have a 6-3 majority in the U.S. Supreme Court. This would be shortsighted, however, since courts can change.

In addition, the bishops’ uncompromising stance projects a negative image for the church, which is seen as trying to impose its unpopular theological views on the rest of the country.

The day is coming when the church will have legitimate concerns about religious freedom, but by that time, no one is going to pay attention to the bishops. Their paranoia has destroyed their credibility and made them irrelevant.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)